Utilities scramble to replace power poles, water pipes in wake of California wildfires

MALIBU, Calif. – The recent California wildfires have destroyed far more than homes. Wooden power poles, PVC water pipes and water mains all are taking a beating. So utility workers now are scouring scorched terrain across the state to return everything to working order, which takes a great deal of effort and resources.

Southern California Edison is one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., providing service to 15 million people in central and Southern California.

Edison’s fire management officer, Troy Whitman, said the utility has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and the number is only growing: “It really takes a small army to support the operation.”

When a wildfire hits, Edison handles it in three phases:

Emergency response, when workers clear out any hazards so evacuees and officials can get where they need to go quickly.
Damage assessment, which means driving (and in some cases, helicoptering) around to see what’s broken.
Restoration, which is the process of replacing everything that was damaged.

Because the fires are still burning, utilities haven’t finished finding what needs fixing. But so far, Edison needs to replace roughly a thousand power poles in Malibu alone, and most of the high-voltage wires they carry.

But it turns out not all poles are created equal.

“Each one of these pole locations has to be engineered for the pole height and the pole strength,” Whitman said. “All of the equipment and hardware on each pole is specific to that location, so packages are created for each one of those locations.”

Fixing the poles along the Pacific Coast Highway and the major canyons is as easy as driving up to where they fell. But in some of Malibu’s smaller, more winding roads, it means digging into the ground by hand, then using a helicopter to set the pole in place.

Whitman said Edison has been using wire with new insulation, which will be less likely to spark when a pole falls down or when debris hits the wire. That could mean fewer fires.

“You can touch it with your hand and you’re insulated from the electricity flowing through the wire,” he said.

Southern California Edison says it has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and more will be needed. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

BRINGING BACK CLEAN WATER

Using all that water for fighting wildfires stresses local water systems, too. In the water district north of Malibu, about two-thirds of its service area burned, which overwhelmed the district’s resource, said Dave Pederson, general manager of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

“Public water systems are not designed to fight wildfires, they’re designed primarily for a structure fire, and to meet people’s domestic and home needs,” he said. “The system does its best to accommodate the firefighting efforts put on the system, but it can only do so much.”

It resulted in warnings to some residents to boil water because bacteria may have leached into the system.

But that wasn’t just because of the high demand from firefighters as they diverted water to their hoses. The fire also melted PVC pipes and broke water mains, and when the power went out, it shut down the pumps that move the water.

“Normally when there’s a leak in a water system … the only thing that happens is the water leaks out so the system is really safe from contamination,” Pedersen said.

But with the drop in pressure from so many demands, contaminates could leak in wherever the pipes were broken. Hence the notice to boil water (which was lifted Friday, Nov. 16).

BOUNCING BACK

Whitman said that, 25 years into his job, he sees the fires getting worse, so it’s a good time for safer power lines.

“The last few years, everyone has seen the increase in fire activity, the rate of spread of these fires, the devastation. I see in my job that things are changing.”

As for an end date, Whitman said the extent of the damage still hasn’t been determined because crews still aren’t able to get to some parts of Malibu.

“But we’re working feverishly to replace the poles we do know about.”

Southern California fires: 2 dead, hundreds of homes destroyed, nearly 100,000 acres burned

The wildfires sweeping across Southern California have destroyed hundreds of homes, killed at least two people and injured several more, and ravaged beloved landmarks and park space.

Here’s the latest on the Woolsey Fire burning near Malibu as of Tuesday.

Thousands of firefighters remain on the line Tuesday, working to contain the fire, which has burned more than 96,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since Thursday afternoon.

The fire started north of Bell Canyon and rapidly moved south through the Santa Monica Mountains, jumping the 101 Freeway and tearing through hillside communities in Malibu, eventually burning all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Two people were found dead Friday afternoon in the 3300 block of Mullholland Highway, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Investigators believe the driver may have become disoriented while escaping the area, but the investigation is ongoing.

The National Weather Service extended its Red Flag warning through 5 p.m. Wednesday for Ventura County, the mountains of Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. The warning for the LA coast from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills remains in effect until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

On Monday night, fire officials said the Woolsey Fire had scorched more than 80 percent of the total national park lands in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

National Park Service officials responded to a flood of inquiries about the condition of wildlife in the mountains, saying the home range of four local bobcats have been completely destroyed. They added that some of the mountain lions biologists are tracking have not yet been accounted for, but said that wasn’t out of the ordinary given how the cougars are monitored.

President Donald Trump meanwhile said he had approved an expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration, which would open up federal funds to assist fire-ravaged California.

“Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on,” Trump tweeted Monday. “I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced several evacuation orders will be lifted at 9 a.m.

Meanwhile, the community of Topanga and the city of Malibu remain under evacuation orders.


BY THE NUMBERS

  • 96,314 acres burned
  • Containment at 35%
  • 2 deaths reported
  • 3 firefighters injured
  • At least 435 structures destroyed and 35 damaged
  • 57,000 structures threatened
  • About 3,590 firefighting personnel on scene


ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

For the latest information straight from local emergency officials, including evacuation orders, road closures, evacuation centers and animal shelters, check the following sites and social media accounts:

Cal Fire Incident Information
Cal Fire on Twitter
Los Angeles County Emergency Information
Ventura County Emergency Information
Los Angeles County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Twitter
Ventura County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
The National Weather Service Los Angeles on Twitter

OTHER FIRE COVERAGE FROM LAist

How To Keep Yourself Safe From Wildfire Smoke (And Where To Get An N95 Mask)
Man Uses Boat To Rescue His Grandparents From Woolsey Fire In Malibu
Malibu Fire Victims Share Their Stories
These Images Show How Devastating The Woolsey Fire Is
How You Can Help Those Affected By The Southern California Wildfires
What To Do — And Not Do — When You Get Home After A Wildfire
Paramount Ranch’s Iconic Western-Themed Set Is No More